The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Genre: Science Fiction
Publication Date: 1996
The Short Version:
The lone survivor of a mission to make contact with intelligent life on a distant planet has returned to Earth is the subject of an inquest.
Why I Read It:
This has been on my TBR list for ages and the readalong hosted by Trish at Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity in September finally got me to actually read it.
From the Publisher:
The Sparrow, an astonishing literary debut, takes you on a journey to a distant planet and to the center of the human soul. It is the story of a charismatic Jesuit priest and linguist, Emilio Sandoz, who leads a twenty-first-century scientific mission to a newly discovered extraterrestrial culture. Sandoz and his companions are prepared to endure isolation, hardship and death, but nothing can prepare them for the civilization they encounter, or for the tragic misunderstanding that brings the mission to a catastrophic end. Once considered a living saint, Sandoz returns alone to Earth physically and spiritually maimed, the mission’s sole survivor — only to be accused of heinous crimes and blamed for the mission’s failure.
I have just so many thoughts about this one that it’s hard to be coherent. There is much to discuss and even though I’m a chronic book club dropout I can see why this one works well as a book club book.
Honestly if it hadn’t been for the strong recommendations from my bookish friends from all over the internet, I probably wouldn’t have picked this up. Far too many people I trust have recommended it and continue to say that it’s one of their favorites. Now I know why.
The science part of the science fiction label is not too tech heavy. This is much more a book about the people involved. It’s about friendship, love, faith, exploration, intervention and ethics.
I liked the way the story shifted back and forth between 2019 when the first radio signals from near Alpha Centauri were detected and 2060 after Emilio is back on Earth disgraced, damaged and under interrogation by a Vatican inquest. Moving back and forth between the progression of the mission and Emilio’s retelling of it in past tense to his interrogators creates a spiral that builds up tension as the truth of what happened on Rakhat is revealed. Bits of the final outcome are revealed early on but the rest is doled out in beautifully written prose that captures the emotions as much as the action.
Many of the characters in this book will stick with me. That includes some that I didn’t like at first but grew to care about. Others I was skeptical about and in at least a couple of cases the skepticism was warranted.
Yes faith plays a huge part in this story but it’s not a book that whacks you over the head with religion. It’s about people and their relationships with other people as well as their deeply personal (and varied) relationships with their God.